On Friday 20 March 1914, around 60 Army officers offered to resign their commissions rather than obey orders. They were based at The Curragh, the chief barracks in Ireland; what happened become know as ‘The Curragh Incident’ or ‘The Curragh Mutiny’.
The (third) Home Rule Bill for Ireland was passed in 1912, anticipating an autonomous parliament in Dublin. The original Dublin based parliament, previously subordinate to London, had achieved a larger degree of autonomy in the 1780s; It was abolished by the Act of Union 1801—as in Scotland a century earlier, a combination of threats and bribes by the English brought it down.
The concept of an Irish parliament in Dublin was opposed by (many) Protestants. There was a vehement reaction to the idea, chiefly but not exclusively in the north of the island. They signed the The Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast’s City Hall, some with their own blood, in 1912; the first signatory was Sir Edward Carson. The Ulster Volunteer Force was founded as an armed militia, with the express purpose of fighting against the imposition on them of a Dublin-based parliament. Between 24 and 25 April 1914, about 25,000 rifles and several million rounds of ammunition, provided by the German Empire, were landed in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor. Lord Randolph Churchill was the first to use the phrase ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right’ in the 1890s.
In March 1914, there was a feverish mood in the north of the island. There was clearly the will for an armed confrontation, and there would soon be the means. Asquith’s government (in a distinctly confused state) seems to have thought that the protestant parts could be subdued and controlled by military means, hence the orders, including the securement of the arsenals in Carrickfergus, Armagh and elsewhere in an effort to prevent the looting of arms. The government hadn’t reckoned with the private sympathy of many officers, who often had family links to the north.
In the event, the government thought better of what would have been, effectively, martial law in a part of the kingdom. The idea of imposing the government’s will by force was abandoned. But this ‘Incident’ was, in a way, the event that foreshadowed partition.
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.